I simply call Bobby G. a street movie. I think that gives an idea of what it's about. Yeah, it's kind of film noir, it's kind of comedy, it's kind of a gangster flick, but in my mind street movie can encompass all of those.
When did you know acting, writing and directing would be your life's work?
I started out as an actor, but realized I wasn't satisfied with the "waiting for the phone to ring" part. I started writing and when I had my first script, thought, "shoot I wanna direct this too ". There was a certain point before I shot Bobby G. where I thought to myself, "If I don't make this movie I'll die ". I had no choice in the matter. Still don't.
Your DP shoots the noirish film in bright, luscious colors which makes your story, the setting, your characters not as dark as they should be. The film by day is pure sunshine.
I thought it important to include a lot of color and brightness in the story, because it deals with a lot of dark stuff and I didn't want to depress the hell out of people. Also, we shot with no money, and if you're in that situation you want to make a lot of your scenes exterior-day. The light is free.
Bobby G. has been a festival favorite. Name some of the festivals and what they achieved toward film completion and subsequent distribution.
When we finished shooting the movie, we still needed a lot of money to finish it; which we didn't have. I sent a rough-cut to Gill Holland, who had produced the Sundance Winner Hurricane Streets. He agreed to help me try to raise finishing funds. However, most of his usual investors passed because of the dark nature of the story. Many months went by. We finally got a huge break when The Santa Barbara Film Festival, headed by Renee Missel, agreed to let us screen as a work in progress. While there, the film was reviewed by Variety. It was a very nice review. The next day the phone was ringing off the hook. We had completion money shortly thereafter. One of the companies that helped us finish, Gabriel Film Group, was about to start a distribution division. At a certain point, they decided to acquire the film for distribution. Some of the festivals we've been to: San Sebastian (Spain), Los Angeles AFI (which we won), Florida (won), Hamptons, Saint Louis, Cleveland, Hawaii, Cairo, Troia (Portugal, Special Jury Award), Cognac (France), Torino (Italy).
I cast the movie myself, through the actors' newspaper Backstage. I got thousands of submissions. At a certain point, the post office wouldn't deliver to my apartment anymore. They would just leave a little yellow slip in my box saying that I had mail to pick up at the nearest branch. I would come home with duffel bags full of pictures and resumes. I would then go through every submission. Exhausting. We finally called a number of people in. We put them on tape, and then I would go home and watch everything. Being on the other side of the audition process was very eye opening. I have always had great respect for actors, but watching them come in one after the other and make themselves vulnerable was very moving. There's so much courage involved. On a funny note, some of the characters in my movie are based on people I knew in Hell's Kitchen when I was bartending there. I actually asked some of them to come in and read for those parts without telling them that they were based on them. None of these people were actors, but I thought it would be simple enough for them to act like themselves. Strangely enough, none of them could. Give them a script, and put them in front of an audition camera and they would freeze. Oh well. That was another thing that made me realize how hard it is to act and act well.
What appeal did Hell's Kitchen have for you?
I've always been drawn to that area for some reason. It's an interesting mix of people and things. The neighborhood has really changed over the past 5 years, but it still has a unique feel to it. When I walk around there I feel hope and I feel sadness. That typifies New York for me. You get a sense that a lot of stuff has "gone down" there.
Was it your intention to bend the genre? Don't you violate the tenets/rules of film noir characters who are empowered with a knowledge of right and wrong and ethics? Bobby G. regurgitates, he tries to drown, he's aching after killing someone.
Yes, I guess I do sort of bend the rules of film noir, but that's why I don't completely consider it that genre. I had to write about a guy that I could care about. He's basically a good person, but he makes his living doing something illegal and can't resist scamming someone if he can. It takes the events of the story to make him realize that in the kind of life he's living, things can only go from bad to worse. He's wrecked after killing the guys because he's not a violent person; the situation he's in leads him to do something desperate. His conscience comes crashing down on him. When I write I try to put myself in the guy's shoes. If I had to kill a stranger in cold blood, it would certainly screw me up.
The Latin music is so deftly embroidered into the story. Is it original, or culled from the label's discography?
Actually a friend of mine played me a bunch of Latin music when I told him I wanted to use some in the film. When I told him which tunes I liked (the Latin tunes are all from one singer), he told me he knew the guy well. I called up the performer and then we called his record label to make a deal.
What is your training or background in acting or directing?
I studied acting at NYU. When I realized I wanted to direct, I went back to NYU and took a two-month intensive course.
What was your pre-Bobby G. life like?
I was a bartender for years while trying to get acting work when I could. If you want to be a writer, bartending is a good way to get material. You hear crazy dialog all night, whether you want to or not. You see every kind of character in the book. First sober, then drunk. I didn't set out to be a bartender in order to find characters, but after a number of years, I realized that some of these people and the situations they talked about made such an impression on me that I had to do something with it.
How did you raise money for Bobby G.?
The bar I worked at in Hell's Kitchen was populated with all kinds of characters; Regular Joes, hookers, dealers, pimps, union officials, you name it. The characters that filled the place were the inspiration for the story. When some of the regulars heard I was trying to raise money to shoot this flick, they pitched in to help me. None of them knew anything about the film industry, and I told them they might never see their money back. But the idea a lot of them went into this with was "I've blown money on dumber things." They helped me because they had good hearts and believed in me. I was very touched by that. I also got money from some fellow bartenders and used money of my own. I raised enough money to shoot the principal photography and that got it in the can. After that, my sources were tapped out. We went for almost a year with no way to finish the movie. Then the Santa Barbara Festival screened us as a work in progress, Variety reviewed it, and everything changed. We got the money to finish shortly thereafter.
What's your next film and what's it about?
One is called Cherry Pie and deals with the Hell's Kitchen Irish mob in 1981; another is called Perfect Pitch and deals with a car sales-pitch competition. I'm talking to producers about both. Whichever one goes first, I'm ready.
About the Cast
Susan Mitchell (Lucy)
Mitchell's film credits include roles in such features as "Flawless," "Q&A," "New Jack City," "The Addiction" and "Home Sweet Hoboken." On television she has appeared in "The Sopranos" and "Third Watch." A member of the Actors' Studio for over a decade, Mitchell is also a classical violinist.
Vincent Vega Dinguis (Coco)
A performer for over ten years, Dinguis is a graduate of the original High School for the Performing Arts. He teaches improvisation to teens in the Bronx, where he was born and raised, and he recently appeared in the Chris Rock film "Down to Earth."
Norman Middleton (Popeet)
John-Luke Montias got to know Middleton, who has never acted before, when Middleton was a regular patron at the Hell's Kitchen tavern where Montias tended bar. Montias wrote the role of Popeet for Middleton, who really is without sight.
Gene Ruffini (Alex)
Ruffini has appeared in such films as "Jump Tomorrow," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Henry Fool," "Analyze This," "Extreme Measures," "Casino" and "La Ciudad." He is also a playwright, screenwriter and published novelist. He was a New York City police reporter and rewrite man before devoting himself to film and theatre.
Steve Heinze (Astro)
Heinze recently finished shooting a principal role in Walter Hill's prison drama "Undisputed," and appeared in Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey."
Donna Sonkin (Gina)
"Bobby G. Can't Swim: A Story of Hell's Kitchen" is Sonkin's film debut